Gordon D’Arcy: Leinster won’t be bullied again and have the game to beat La Rochelle

If Leinster maintain their quick ruck speed they will get the tries they need to win

If Leinster can reach the level of excellence that they have shown in key matches this season for 80 minutes in Marseille on Saturday evening, then they will win a fifth Heineken Champions Cup. Anything less may not suffice.

La Rochelle have many qualities and are eminently capable of winning the final but what they don't quite have is their opponent's top-end, gold standard, rugby prowess. Leinster will need to produce that level, to be pitch perfect physically and mentally, to guarantee the success they have craved since last winning the tournament in 2018.

Drawing a line from that success, only Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Johnny Sexton, James Ryan, and Tadhg Furlong started that victory over Racing 92, while Andrew Porter, Jamison Gibson-Park and Jack Conan were among the replacements in terms of next Saturday's likely run-on team.

Almost half, seven players of Leo Cullen's putative team against La Rochelle – Hugo Keenan, Jimmy O'Brien, James Lowe, Rónan Kelleher, Ross Molony, Caelan Doris, and Josh van der Flier – have never played in and won a Champions Cup final on the pitch.

Being lucky enough to play in a European final is very special. Let me offer context. When we played in the 2009 final against Leicester Tigers that was my 11th season as a professional player. A whole generation of players can come and go and never even get close to one, so you try to savour that landmark achievement.

Can this La Rochelle side bully Leinster? I'm not convinced they can

For me it was very much a case that I enjoyed finals retrospectively because at the time the pressure can be claustrophobic. It is important to block out anything that might compromise an ability to perform on the day. A general rule of thumb was to rely heavily on what got you there in terms of playing style, increase the intensity from the previous game and understand that accuracy was fundamental to success in attack and defence.

In 2009 we played a largely expansive style of rugby that yielded tries. In that final both teams were evenly matched, and it was the nerve of a young Johnny Sexton that proved decisive. We had built a lot of the season’s foundations on defence, most notably against Harlequins in the quarter-final.

We fought hard to stay true to the approach that had got us there, and a monumental defensive effort in the final quarter kept the Tigers at bay. In some small way the scales of balance tipped in our favour because we played our game, accurate enough at the moments that counted, so that we did not need to suddenly have to chase a deficit and the match to try and win.

Physical readiness should not be an issue for Leinster and La Rochelle in Marseille given that Cullen and Ronan O’Gara were able to rest the lion’s share of their frontline players last weekend. The mental strength side of affairs, individually and collectively, only reveals itself during a final.

The issues Leinster encountered in last season's semi-final defeat to La Rochelle do not seem to be as prevalent this year. Can this La Rochelle side bully Leinster? I'm not convinced they can. The emergence from a Leinster perspective of one of the best frontrows in the world, assuming Tadhg Furlong is fit, the fact that Doris and Van der Flier can, at a minimum, match Gregory Alldritt and Victor Vito bodes well.

It also considerably reduces the potential for Leinster to be physically dominated. I believe that whoever controls the pace of the ball at the breakdown will hold the nap hand in deciding the outcome. If Leinster maintain their super-quick ruck speed, then it is going to be very tough for the French club to deny them tries.

Gibson-Park and Sexton on the front foot is an irresistible sight. La Rochelle will want to control the ball, and while speed of ruck is important for them, territory is arguably more so. A physically unrelenting confrontation on the gainline will play to their strengths and will force Leinster to counterpunch, when they are used to leading in exchanges during matches.

Leinster's youngsters did, if not the unthinkable, the improbable last weekend and won against a strong and experienced Munster team. The result brought a huge level of scrutiny, the upshot was largely disappointment for Munster who came off second best, while their opponents re-emphasised the huge depth of quality in the extended squad.

Munster’s fortunes on the pitch of late are index-linked to Peter O’Mahony’s presence. He provides leadership and demands accountability from those around him. In his absence there is a vacuum when it comes to organisation and direction.

Two-week plan

Once upon a time the same could be said of Leinster and Ireland regarding Sexton but that has changed in recent times. He remains a hugely influential player but there are others in the blue or green jersey that can share the workload or provide the requisite guidance. Those teams no longer look as vulnerable in his absence.

Cullen was able to adopt a two-week plan, ahead of the Munster and La Rochelle matches and was handed an additional bonus with a few players from last Saturday making a compelling case for inclusion in the matchday 23 for Marseille.

Jordan Larmour reminded everyone how dangerous a broken-field runner he is, Ryan Baird demonstrated his phenomenal athleticism while Joe McCarthy validated those observers who have proclaimed his qualities.

Ciarán Frawley had a couple of stitches inserted but passed his Head Injury Assessment (HIA). His line break, sublime change of angle on to Jamie Osborne's delayed pass and crossfield kick for Scott Penny reinforced his value as a second playmaker.

The Leinster squad for the game in the Aviva Stadium last weekend would have been challenged to ensure that everyone went into Champions Cup final week with a spring in the collective step and they achieved that goal superbly. They met the obligation to perform, handing over the baton in impressive fashion.

This approach was not limited to Leinster and O'Gara managed to mastermind an impressive win against Stade Francais, juggling the demands of rotating his playing squad, resting frontliners and welcoming back a fresh face in Will Skelton, to boot.

Ihaia West, who had missed four place kicks in the European semi-final win over Racing, was a lot more assured with the boot last weekend. Handed the duties after Jules Plisson had erred with three attempts. O'Gara will have been relieved to see his first choice outhalf in good fettle.

Possession, territory, and scoreboard pressure are generally paramount to success. Kickers can make or break a team. I remember playing Clermont Auvergne in the RDS in 2010, their playmaker Brock James missed five kicks and three drop goals during the match; we beat them by a point that day. La Rochelle thrive on squeezing teams until they cough up penalties or tries and in respect of the former, they cannot afford those opportunities to go west, pun intended.

They play a style of game that wins matches in a very traditional French fashion. They take points when on offer and pursue a drop goal or two to keep the scoreboard ticking over. It is a very underrated type of approach, but it makes sense. When the momentum of an attack evaporates, if there are three points on offer take them with open arms.

We previously discussed the ability to improve in every match being at the crux of a successful campaign. Racing managed to hand the match to La Rochelle in the semi-final through a bizarre defence set which cost them two yellow cards at the same time. They were never able to recover.

This will be the first time that Leinster will contest a final on French soil, and without overstating it, this will feel like a home match for the French. La Rochelle will take any advantage and believe they have unfinished business in Europe after last year’s final was skewed appreciably after Levani Botia’s red card.

The battle of the 10s will be key. In last year's semi-final final West got an armchair ride, able to sit deep in the pocket and pull strings, while Leinster were without Sexton

The game will project a clash of styles and Leinster will be under pressure to stick to the approach that has gotten them here. If you were to step back and decide how to beat a team like La Rochelle, it would be exactly how Leinster are playing. The ball-in-play time will be crucial to the result.

The outsized Uini Atonio, Will Skelton and Remi Picquette do not want to be hustled out of their comfort zone pace-wise chasing rucks, while there is a limit as to what an aging Vito and Alldritt can accomplish in trying to counter this style of attack if Leinster maintain their current level of accuracy.

La Rochelle are in more or less the same position as last season, both in Europe and their domestic league. They are arguably not playing as well though. They relied on turnovers to beat a poor Stade side last weekend while their performance against Racing in the European semi-final was disjointed.

For all that they possess a game that can hurt Leinster and have won eight of their last nine games. The battle of the 10s will be key. In last year’s semi-final final West got an armchair ride, able to sit deep in the pocket and pull strings, while Leinster were without Sexton and Gibson-Park.

I cannot imagine that West will get the same time and space this year, barring a complete implosion from the Leinster pack. Leinster must match the physicality of La Rochelle without getting drawn into an arm wrestle. Injury issues in both camps have yet to be fully clarified but assuming everyone pitches up then there can be no complaints.

Leinster, at their best, have more in the locker; the key to transfer it to the pitch in Marseille come Saturday evening. If they do, they win, if they don’t, they could lose. Simple.